City Commission votes 3-2 to approve millage rate increase for 2019 fiscal year

Mayor joins vice mayor and Commissioner Shaw in the majority

A graphic shows details of the proposed City of Sarasota budget for the 2019 fiscal year. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

For the second special budget meeting in a row, the Sarasota City Commission split 3-2 on a decision. This time, though, Mayor Liz Alpert joined Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Willie Shaw in approving a millage rate increase of 0.0904 for the 2019 fiscal year, which will begin Oct. 1.

During its regular meeting on July 16, the board is scheduled to vote on the not-to-exceed millage rate, so the information can be provided on the Truth in Millage (TRIM) property tax notices that typically are mailed out in August of each year.

However — as the term implies and as city staff has pointed out — the “not-to-exceed” millage rate could be lowered during the final budget hearing in September.

The proposed increase in the city’s millage rate from 3.1728 to 3.2632 would cost the owner of a $200,000 house an extra $18.08 per year, or $1.51 per month, Kelly Strickland, director of financial administration, noted again during the commission’s special meeting on July 9.

The primary reason for the proposed increase is the fact that the city is having to absorb the operations and maintenance of five parks previously under the management of Sarasota County. Because of the County Commission’s concerns late last year about balancing its budget for the 2019 fiscal year, it agreed to allow staff to send letters to the municipalities, indicating the likelihood that the county would end the applicable interlocal agreements at the conclusion of this fiscal year.

On July 9, City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out to the commissioners that Jerry Fogle, the city’s director of parks and recreation, is “trying to do as good or better a job with less staffing” for the five facilities over which the city will be assuming management: Ken Thompson Park, Arlington Park and Aquatic Center, the Payne Park Tennis Center, Centennial Park and the lawn bowling facilities on the city’s waterfront.

Fogle had requested 14 new full-time employees and 14 new part-time employees for the 2019 fiscal year.

Although the County Commission this week approved a new agreement calling for the county to give the city $881,682 a year for three years to help the city with the transition, Barwin noted on July 9 that after that funding support ends, “there’s going to be another big chunk of expenses” for the city to absorb.

When Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie asked how the $881,682 figure was chosen, Fogle explained, “It was absolutely a negotiation.”

A graphic shows details about the city’s proposed General Fund for the 2019 fiscal year. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown and Assistant City Manager John Lege met three or four times with Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham and Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, Fogle added.

“They started out around $225,000,” he continued. “We went back and forth.”

The county’s budget, Fogle added, is “a little different than our budget. I’ll just keep it at that.”

Cunningham and Brown finally told Brown and Lege that the $881,682 was their last offer, Fogle said. “This was basically, ‘Take it or leave it …’”

Strickland, the financial administration director, pointed out that the net cost of the city’s taking over the five parks would be $914,546 in the FY19 budget.

Altogether, the proposed FY19 city budget of $229,414,549 is up 13.33%, compared to the FY18 budget.

The General Fund spending is projected to climb from $66,812,128 this year to $73,045,431 in FY19.

Police Department camera issue still unresolved

A chart shows proposed new city employees for the 2019 fiscal year. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The proposed budget does include $250,000 for implementation of a body camera and/or patrol vehicle camera system for the Sarasota Police Department. However, Chief Bernadette DiPino made it clear that that the expense for one year of both types of systems — for the approximately 100 Patrol Division officers — would be closer to $1 million, “if you’re going to do it the right way.”

She pointed out to the commissioners on July 9, “Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars doesn’t even begin to cover any of the costs.”

The expense of just one body camera is approximately $700, DiPino told the board, and that does not include maintenance, video storage or other related expenses, including legal fees.

She recommended that, because improvements are being made rapidly in law enforcement camera technology, if the board wants to implement a system, it should authorize the purchase of all the cameras the Police Department would need at one time.

Yet another consideration, DiPino said, is that if some patrol cars have cameras and others do not, members of the public will question the reasoning behind that.

The commissioners have agreed to hold another workshop to decide whether they want to proceed with any type of patrol camera system for FY19, as DiPino also noted continuing concerns about privacy issues. Those could result in costly litigation against the city, she and other city staff members have cautioned.

Continuing disagreements

A chart shows estimated expenses for body cameras and patrol car cameras for the Sarasota Police Department. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

After taking slightly more than two hours for discussions on issues left unresolved following their June 27 budget meeting, the city commissioners took a short break on July 9. When they returned to the dais, Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch said she was ready to make a motion to approve the first of four options Strickland had presented for the 2019 fiscal year. Along with the $250,000 “placeholder” — as Strickland had put it — for the Police Department cameras, that option would add $39,596 to the city’s fund balance.

Commissioner Hagen Brody called for more discussion first, but Ahearn-Koch told him that the discussion should follow a motion. “That’s normally the way it works.”

“Duh,” Brody replied.

“Thank you for that,” she said. Then she made the motion.

After Commissioner Shaw seconded it, Commissioner Freeland Eddie provided her colleagues with copies of a series of steps she said would reduce the proposed budget enough to eliminate the need for a tax increase. “I’m not in favor of raising the millage rate,” she said. “We can’t fund everything.”

After Freeland Eddie ran through her suggestions, Strickland pointed out that some of them pertained to city “enterprise funds,” including the Solid Waste Division budget. Enterprise funds for a local government are those comprising revenue a department generates through fees for services; the money, in turn, covers the department’s expenses.

The General Fund, which includes all the property tax revenue the city receives, pays the expenses of the Police Department, for example, and other city departments that do not generate their own revenue.

These are part of the proposals Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie offered to eliminate the need for a millage rate increase. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Among the changes Freeland Eddie had proposed were reducing the requested 23 new staff members in the Solid Waste Division to handle in-house recycling services. Public Works Director Doug Jeffcoat said again on July 9 that he expects that change to save the city $200,000 a year, because of jumps in contractual expenses for recycling — and increasing uncertainty about those hikes year-to-year.

Freeland Eddie also proposed reductions in requested new staffing to handle the operations of the $15-million St. Armands parking garage, which is expected to open in December.

Strickland explained that those positions will be funded by revenue from metered parking, which will begin on St. Armands concurrently with the opening of the garage, along with special tax assessments of merchants.

Nonetheless, Strickland did acknowledge that the covenants of the bonds the City Commission approved to pay for the garage call for increases in the parking meter payments, if necessary, should revenue fall below expected levels.

“There is no impact on the General Fund, as it sits right now,” Deputy City Manager Brown explained, in response to questions from Commissioner Brody.

“That’s the plan, anyways,” City Manager Barwin added, noting that the amount of revenue from the parking meters “is one of those unknowns …”

“So when people don’t park [in the metered spaces], then we raise the rates?” Freeland Eddie asked.

“Correct,” Brown told her.

This chart provides details about the proposed millage rate increase. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“The bottom line is that we have to make the payments [on the bonds],” Barwin said.

Brody then voiced his frustrations with the staff proposals for FY19. “This is such an aggressive budget,” he said. “I just simply think we’re biting off way more than we can chew right now.”

He continued, “We should have a level of service that we aim to maintain. [It] should provide the community with the services that the community desires and requests, and we should do it well.”

Additionally, he said, “We should be in a position where we can be putting money away into our reserves to plan for [the next] inevitable [economic] downturn. This budget doesn’t do that.”

Brody made the point more than once that people already will pay more in city property taxes in the new fiscal year because property values have climbed again. (Strickland put the increase as of July 1 at 8.87%, compared to the final city property value for 2017.)

“The city manager is not going to rein this in unless we direct him to,” Brody added of the proposed budget.

Ahearn-Koch and Alpert disagreed. “I do think  … that what we are doing today is notdoing everything all at once,” Ahearn-Koch pointed out. The department chiefs, Barwin and Brown “worked very hard,” she continued, to reduce the total of the original requests for new personnel and equipment from more than $5 million to about $2.1 million out of the General Fund.

“We have talked about this budget again and again and again,” Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues.

With respect to the parks, she pointed out, the public “does want the quality of service” staff has proposed.

“I would like to commend the staff and our many department heads … for presenting us with a very reasonable budget.”

Mayor Alpert sided with Freeland Eddie and Brody in the 3-2 vote on June 27 because she wanted one more thorough review of the proposed budget, she added. “I think this is a very reasonable, well-thought-out budget.”